In 1916, the first artistic contest for drawings and designs of contemporary women’s clothing in Russia was held. It was announced by the Union of Russian Women, which was under the patronage of the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, and the leading works were published in the journal Damskii Mir (Ladies’ world). The first prize was awarded to Rene O’Connell, a student who was at that time the wife of artist Ivan Bilibin, and the second prize to the artist Ivanitskaia-Panina. Both women presented works based on Russian traditional national dress. However, the fashion-design contests did not gain wide popularity until the postrevolutionary years.
On 7 May 1918, the People’s Commissariat of the Military announced a competition to design the uniforms for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. Among the participants of this contest were Viktor Vasnetsov, Boris Kustodiev, and Mikhail Ezuchevskii. Even though S. Arkad’evskii was awarded the first prize, the prototype of the uniform finalized in April 1919 was a compilation of several submitted projects. In particular, it included a piece invented by Vasnetsov and Kustodiev—the pointed helmet called budenovka. The competition indicated the importance of the uniform in life at that time. In addition, the contest produced a practical result—the new military uniform.
In December 1918, a Petrograd newspaper, Zhizn’ iskusstva (Life of art), announced a competition to design the uniforms of the Mercantile Navy, and, in January 1919, the Professional Labor Union of Artists in Petrograd declared a contest for drawings of outfits, dresses, and aprons. Similar contests held by official institutions at all levels were frequent; however, nothing is known of their results.
One of the major reasons for these competitions was the lack of skilled workers. Prerevolutionary clothing production had been based on the individual tailor’s knowledge and experience. Designing simple clothing that could be economically and easily produced in mass quantities was an entirely new task. The new government did not know how to tackle this issue, and this problem motivated all the subsequent competitions.
In the 1920s and 1930s, dress-design contests were mainly announced by fashion magazines or women’s magazines faced with the task of creating new Soviet styles. Writing for Zhenskii zhurnal (Women’s journal), the famous artist Georgiii Yakulov supported the idea that the authorities should rely on competitions in the search for new dress styles. A “Contest for New and Elegant Women’s Dress” was announced by Zhenskii zhurnal in 1926. It was open to professional artists as well as amateurs, and projects for all garment types were accepted: formal, business, and work clothes, as well as everyday dress and clothing for domestic work. The best works were supposed to be awarded prizes and published in the journal. This competition drew a wide response throughout the country. Readers sent in drawings and letters discussing the Soviet clothing style. The submitted projects, many of which were popular reflections of the national dress, were published in issues 6, 7, and 8 of the journal. In 1927, the journal Chetyre Sezona (Four seasons) proclaimed its plan to hold a contest for designs for a Soviet women’s outfit.
Similar competitions had a number of goals: to attract attention to clothing design, to improve the quality of the sewing industry’s products, and to discover and train professional “dress artists,” as fashion designers were called in the Soviet Union. But despite the opening of the Sewing Industry Research Institute in 1930 and the National House of Fashion in 1935, the profession still failed to develop in the pre–World War II Soviet Union. In addition, there were no specialized schools that educated skilled clothing designers. Therefore, stress was placed on involving the working masses in these contests, with the assumption that they would aid the clothing industry in creating a truly “national” and Socialist style. “The people” had to become their own fashion creators.
In the spring of 1932, the Moscow Museum of History opened an exhibition of everyday clothing designs sent in for the “new forms” contest that had been announced by the clothing industry. The participants were once again a mix of professional artists and housewives, and a new challenge was posed: to avoid imported fabrics and utilize domestic materials exclusively. In 1940, the largest of all pre–World War II contests took place, organized by the State Light Industry Production. Four hundred and fifty-four projects submitted by 119 entrants from all across the country were examined by a committee chaired by M. Murav’ev, Vice People’s Commissar for Light Industry. The winning works were published in the journals Modeli Sezona (Models of the seasons) and Kostium i Palto (Dress\suit and coat), and the best sketches were displayed in the exhibition hall of the Moscow City Light Industry Administration. With the new condition requiring the use of domestic fabrics in place, the judges singled out designs that incorporated frugal principles not only in the garment’s production but also in its later use (for instance, the ability to replace certain parts of the dress as became worn out). Although the results of this competition did not satisfy the judges as they were proclaimed unsuitable for mass production, the commission decided to hold such contests annually, which would be open to participation by any citizen of the Soviet Union. World War II, which began soon afterward, interfered with these plans, however, and the following competition that was held in 1944 by the Moscow House of Fashion had no resonance.
The revival of the design competitions was associated with the activity of the New Clothes Creation Group that formed as part of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), the institution that promoted trade between the Socialist countries. The annual dress contests among the Socialist countries started in 1950, but the Soviet Union joined only at the Prague contest in 1953—and went unnoticed, because their samples were unremarkable and ordinary. Urgent political and technical measures had to be taken. A nationwide contest held in 1954 attracted 154 entrants from all parts of the country, who generously shared their ideas and designs. The following Socialist dress contest, held in Budapest in 1954, had nearly identical requirements to the nationwide contests in the Soviet Union and brought the Soviet designers the grand prize—the Big Cup. After that, no more competitions involving both professional and amateur clothing designers were held in the Soviet Union. The country’s future participation in international dress contests and trade fairs was now turned over to professional fashion designers.